Assignment 3 – Discourse analysis I: Text, intertextuality, context

Discourse, by definition, is ‘a group of statements which provide a language for talking about’ (Hall, 1992). To put it simply, it is a way of representation. Yet, discourse has more than one meaning – it can also refer to the act of making a speech, official or unofficial (Tonkiss, 2012). Though it is defined as a kind of ‘speech’, the form of making a discourse is not limited to only speaking – it can also be in the form of writing, drawing, or other forms that you can think of.  When it is comes to logo and branding, we generally refer to the presenting and the packaging of the products.

While people always compare between the psychoanalytic approach raised by Sigmund Freud and the discourse analysis approach proposed by Michel Foucault, people generally consider the discourse analysis as better in addressing how social institutions and practices affect the way an image is produced. There are two types of discourse analysis, namely the discourse analysis I and discourse analysis II, and the two of them show a slight difference and, hence, different research results will be produced using different approaches.

In my understanding, discourse analysis I focuses more on the content of the presentation. For example, in a speech, the content of the speech (i.e. what the presenter said) would be what we focus on in discourse analysis I. Other examples would be ‘visual images and verbal texts’ (Rose, 2001). While discourse analysis I focuses more on the content, discourse analysis II focuses more on the ‘practices of institutions’. To put it simply, it studies how the speech is presented, instead of what is presented.

Using Elliott’s article on Starbucks (2001) as an example. Starbucks is a popular iconic brand of coffee retailers. We can use discourse analysis to study how Starbucks becomes an iconic brand.

First, let’s look at the name of the coffee beans it sells. Starbucks names the beans based on mostly where they come from. Therefore, when customers buy a cup of coffee from Starbucks, they feel like they are buying something more than just a cup of coffee – they are buying a culture across globe as well! Yet, what the customers don’t know is that, the coffee is most of the time made by mixing beans from multiple origins, so that Starbucks can make a coffee that tastes the best. In other words, Starbucks is making the culture themselves. Consumers are purchasing culture that is often over simplified (a country’s culture is way more than just its coffee beans) or even made-up. Yet, consumers find it satisfying when Starbucks sells coffee that involve more than just coffee. That is how Starbucks makes use of discourse and shapes the package of its coffee, and how it affects consumers’ images towards Starbuck’s coffee.

What is more, instead of naming their staff servers, they are called barista; similarly, Starbucks does not measure its coffee in the size of small, medium, large, instead they use the Italian measurement of short, grande and venti. Hence, also with the coffee originated from different cultures, it provides consumers with a coffee experience from multiple cultures.

Starbucks also makes use of words in order to make consumers’ coffee experience more special. It provides personal services by providing the best type of coffee




Elliott, C. (2001). “Consuming caffeine: The discourse of Starbucks and coffee” In: Consumption, Markets and Culture, 4(4), pp. 369-382.

Hall, S. (1992). The West and the Rest: Discourse and power. The Indigenous Experience: Global Perspectives, 165-173.

Rose, G. (2001). Visual methodologies: An introduction to researching with visual materials. London: Sage. (Chapter 6: Discourse Analysis I)

Tonkiss, F. (2012). Discourse analysis. In: C. Seale (ed.), Researching Society and Culture (pp. 405–423). London: Sage.

Assignment 2 – Cultural Branding

When it comes to iconic brand, a lot of people think about Apple, Nike, Coca Cola, etc. While these types of brands have been frequently used and discussed, I would like to bring a new example to illustrate the idea of iconic branding and cultural branding.

In Hong Kong there is a famous brand named Watsons Water. As you can already tell from its name, it is a producer of water. It sells water of all type – from small portable bottles of water to large tanks of water you can find in an office water dispenser. Now you may wonder: how can a company which sells only water, something we can easily obtain from simply opening a tap, be one of the most famous and wealthy brand in Hong Kong? It all has to do with its branding.

The first thing Watsons Water has to do is to reconstruct our understanding about water. As soon as we have started to learn about basic physics, we learnt that the boiling point of liquid water is 100 degree Celsius – water in liquid form cannot go any higher than this temperature because they would have become steam (gas form of water) should they reach temperature higher than 100°C. Yet, Watsons Water overthrows this concept, and claims that their water has been heated up to 105°C, so as to make the most purified and distilled water. Nobody knows exactly how Watsons Water can heat water up to 105°C – the myth behind the water made by Watsons make itself stand out from other brands selling water, hence becoming the iconic brand in the industry of drinking water producers.

Watsons Water claims that their water has been heated up to 105 degree Celsius

What is more, Watsons Water also constructs an image that the consumption of Watsons Water is indeed a lifestyle. Thirty years ago in Hong Kong, people everywhere used to prepare their own water with their own reusable water bottle. Yet, Watsons Water began its campaign and introduced different stylish water bottles. Bring your own water bottle then became something outdated, while buying Watsons Water from stores became something stylish and fashionable. By making the consumption of its water a fashionable lifestyle, Watsons Water succeeds in making their consumers believe they are buying something more than just a bottle of water, but a style of life.


Watsons Water puts new design of their water bottle as a special edition from time to time
Watsons Water also introduces their new Recycling Bottle to echo people’s arising awareness on environmental protection

Other than selling water, Watsons Water is also very active in different charity functions and major activities. One of the most famous events Watsons Water is fully responsible of has to be ‘a Drop of Life’. In ‘a Drop of Life’, participants take part in an event similar to walkathon, in which they have to finish walking the assigned route with a heavy bottle of water on their back so that they can raise money for a charity group working on water projects in cities under poverty. The appearance of Watsons Water in different charity activities help develop them as an iconic brand, or even a cultural brand. Furthermore, Watsons Water invites different celebrities to promote and participate in their activities. It is similar to Nike’s promotion method in which they find different sport celebrities to promote their products. Hence, similar effects of constructing an iconic brand can be achieved.

‘A Drop of Life’
Participants carry a heavy bottle of water on their back and finish the route, symbolizing carrying water to poor children in distant areas
Heavy water bottle sponsored by Watsons Water


Celebrities are invited to promote the events

By presenting to the consumers its identity myth, and providing a sense of style to the consumers, Watsons Water successfully stands out from other water producers and become an iconic brand in Hong Kong. Hence, it largely echoes the points of view Holt’s study in 2004 about how an iconic brand or a cultural brand can be achieved.

Assignment 1 – Signs, Icons, Symbols

The concept of semiotics can be defined in several ways. In Branston’s and Stafford’s essay (2003), semiotics can be understood as the study of signs, or how meaning is produced socially with sign systems, or the significance of things. It provides ‘fundamental insights’ to the study of different cultures because of its stresses on the meaning of cultures and social phenomena, as well as the relations among them, instead of seeing it simply as a tangible, ‘material’ object (Berger, 2010).

Sign is the fundamental unit of semiotics (Berger, 2010). Saussure believes that sign consists of two parts (1966). One of them is the signifier, which is something physical, for example words & pictures, and is the way/thing we use to represent an object or an idea; On the other hand, signified, which is the other important part of sign, is the concept of the object or the idea we are representing. Hence and therefore, signified is something intangible – it is just a concept. Saussure goes on with his argument that signified, our understanding of an object or an idea, is culturally constructed. Hence, it can be studied in two different ways – synchronically (at a specific point in time) or diachronically (across the time span) (Berger, 2010). In my opinion, other than the factor of time, we can also study it by comparing different cultures – as it’s mentioned that the meaning is constructed socially and culturally, hence cultural differences can also be studied.

Peirce suggested the third part of the concept of sign and introduced the term of referent (Branston & Stafford, 2003). While signifier refers to the representation and signified refers to the concept we have about the thing represented, referent is the thing itself – the real, natural thing. Peirce continued with his argument and further broke down sign into three different concepts – icon, index and symbol.

Icon, by definition, refers to the kind of sign that is in some sense similar to what they are representing (Branston & Stafford, 2003). Most common kinds of examples involve drawings, photographs, as well as some signboards we can see in our daily lives. To better understand the concept of icon, we can use signboards as an example. For example, sign boards giving directions usually consist of arrows, because directions can be given with the pointing of the arrows; We can differentiate male toilets from the female ones because of the signboards, because signboards indicating female toilets involve a figure in dress, which is a type of clothing just for women. From this, we can see that icon breaks down language barriers, because usually it involves sign that is remarkable of the object/idea itself.

Arrow on signboard shows where the direction is.
Female and male can be distinguished by the way they dress.

Symbol, on the other hand, does not resemble the referent, and is usually arbitrary. Common examples are languages. Most of the time, our understanding of symbols is culturally shaped and constructed. Hence, symbols differ from cultures to cultures. For example, the word ORANGE itself carries no meaning at all but 6 different letters (only if you know English – if you don’t, they will just be 6 different weird shapes). However, we are shaped culturally that we can make some sense out of the word and we know that the word refers to a fruit or a color. This is what it means by culturally constructing our understanding of the symbols (languages in this case). Therefore, our understanding of symbols vary a lot among different cultures.

ORANGE, as a symbol, represents this fruit in English, but not in other cultures.

We would name a sign ‘index’ when there is a casual relationship between the signifier and the referent. Common examples involve smoke, which we can easily relate to fire, or a runny nose, which again we can easily relate to a person catching cold.

The woman sneezing makes us think she may be catching a cold.

The major difference between the three concepts is, of course, their different definitions and their different meanings. Yet, another significant difference between the three concepts is that symbol is more culturally specific, yet icon and index may not be the same. Despite the mentioned differences, in our daily lives, most of the time different kinds of sign would be used together to convey a better meaning.

A signboard involving both icons (arrows and aeroplane figures) and symbols (words).

Semiotics bring in new elements to the study of sociology. For example, as mentioned in Branston’s and Stafford’s essay (2003), semiotics help scholars understand how products can be presented to the public and hence enhance consumerism. Other famous studies include Mythologies, American Mythologies, Empire of Signs, which are targeted at cultures in France, the United States and Japan respectively. Therefore, from this, we can see that semiotics is very important to the study of sociology and can be used as a new kind of research method, because signs are everywhere in our lives.


Berger, A. A. (2010). The objects of affection: semiotics and consumer culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan. (chapter 1: “The Science of Signs, pp. 3-31)

Branston, G., & Stafford, R. (2003). The media student’s book. London/New York: Psychology Press. (chapter: “Semiotic Approaches”, pp. 11-17)

Saussure, F. D. (1966). Course in General Linguistics, edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, translated by Wade Baskin.